Not a Very Intelligent Perspective: Racism and the Failures of White Thought
A student from Afghanistan told me a story about an American man who said he wanted to free Afghan women. He wanted to take the headscarves off Afghan women and burn them (the headscarves). My student did not think this would free her. What he would be doing, she said, is attacking her. I don’t know if she told the man that. If she did, he probably didn’t understand.
I can imagine him saying, “I’m on your side here!” I’m sure he thought he was.
This is where his thought fails, and his racism persists.
By this I don’t mean that racism is thoughtlessness. Racism, even by those who don’t “mean” it, is not caused by not thinking. It is not caused by addling one’s mind with drugs or alcohol. It is not caused by lapses in judgment. Racism, by those who do and don’t “mean” it, is full of thought. It’s just that the thought fails.
The thoughts of the man who wanted to free Afghan women failed because he thought he had all the thoughts he needed. He thought he had all the information and facts and powers of reason he needed. Like: an Afghan woman would only wear a headscarf if compelled by law, religion, custom, or a lack of personal liberation. And: different rules should not apply to different people, but often, different rules do apply to women. They have to wear headscarves, while men do not. This was wrong! He wanted to fix it!
This is not empathy. The demands of empathy are great. Empathy demands really, really good thinking. The man had a bunch of feelings, and they started and ended in him. He did not search for the many existing iterations of Afghan women’s very layered thought about headscarves and the means of freedom. He had feelings about his own goodness and power. If his kind offer to free Afghan women were declined, he would likely feel even worse for himself than he felt for Afghan women.
His thought also failed because he thought he had perspective, singular, and while others may have other “perspectives,” these were, he thought, tantamount to opinions, which are pretty much feelings.
Perspectives are not opinions at all, or feelings. Perspectives are angles from which people see the world. They cannot be assigned a value. They just are.
It is not possible to understand other perspectives, fully. It is a failure of white thought to believe that we can see things from other people’s perspectives.
What is possible is to imagine that other perspectives exist, and that these perspectives are not feelings nor opinions. It is possible to accept the existence and validity and largeness of these perspectives without understanding them. A failure of white thought is the belief that something is only true if it can be comprehended by the white person. But comprehend means grasp. It means take.
This failure undergirds the statement, “I don’t understand how that’s racist.”
The white thought that the white person can save or free or liberate a person of color comes from the white person’s feeling of power. White power.
Last week, the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo made a public post about a clear incident of hate speech by [names redacted to avoid litigation]. The editor of Fence Books, Rebecca Wolff, commented, “it’s probably not the right response but I feel sorry for them because my understanding is that they do a lot of drugs. really fucks with the judgment.” When two poets, both women of color, read this as an expression of sympathy for [redacted], or as a defense and an excuse for their racism, Wolff replied, “Ummm, that’s not a very intelligent perspective.”
This statement is not the same as the man’s statement that he wanted to burn the veils of Afghan women, but it comes from the same failure of thought. Wolff’s statements suggest that she thought she had all the thoughts she needed to judge the intelligence of a woman of color’s perspective, when really perspective is not a matter of intelligence. It is a matter of seeing real things from a real angle.
From her own angle, as a white woman, she did not see the real impact of her statements, and she also did not accept that others did see this impact. She thought this was a matter of opinion, and feeling, rather than vision.
She later called a response to her statements “obtuse,” seeming to imply that her interlocutor did not see something she saw. But an obtuse angle is the widest an angle can be without being a straight line. An obtuse perspective would, by definition, be a most expansive vision. It would see much more.
Such as: White people often have the impulse to look for motivations for racist acts (as if racist acts are not motivated by racism), instead of looking at the impact of the racist acts on people of color. This is a failure, and it has its own impact.
And: White people often don’t “believe” or “understand” what people of color are saying about the impact of racism. White people require more explanation and more evidence.
And: Providing this explanation and evidence, again and again, has its own impact, especially because white people often still, when faced with all the evidence, refer to the experience of racism as a feeling (“feeling offended”), when it is a fact. It is empirical. The facts are clearly in evidence. Not accepting this is a failure of white thought.
As a white person, I’ve seen glimpses. I can’t see from this expansive perspective wholly or reliably because I am white, but I can accept the existence and validity of this vision. I can accept that it is more expansive than mine. I can think very hard about how I may not have all the facts I need. For example, just as Wolff sees the effects of drugs on [redacted], but doesn’t (or at least didn’t) see the actual, factual impact of drawing attention to their drug use in the context of their racism, I myself see the impact of sexism on Hillary Clinton and her candidacy, but I do not fully see the impact of Hillary Clinton’s racist statements and her support of damaging legislation on people of color. I don’t fully see the impact of vocally supporting Hillary Clinton.
So much has been explained and put into evidence that I can see the limits of my perspective. I can see how little I see.
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